It's a little disconcerting. Of all the information so industriously
created, consumed and collected on campus, only five per cent is worth preserving
And it's Ian Forsyth's job - as Simon Fraser University's archivist charged with keeping a record of SFU's achievements and failings, its people and events -- to decide which information has public and historical value.
Forsyth (above), who arrived on campus almost two years ago from the Archives of Ontario, also inherited two new mandates: to create a university-wide records manage-ment program; and to establish and implement information access and privacy procedures.
Faced with a 30-year backlog of information, it's been a daunting project. "It's human nature, we find, for people to want to hold onto everything they create -- and to hold onto it forever and a day," says Forsyth, whose staff has so far helped 15 departments clean up their information backlog and find the five per cent of gems worth keeping.
Administering the B.C. government's new Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is also no small feat. "The challenges have been to change practices,'' says Forsyth. "We have to provide easy access to information while preserving the privacy of personal information."
This summer the archives moved from cramped quarters in the library to a larger space on the
ground level of the new student services building. Along with the larger space come larger ambitions.
"I want to shake free of the perception of an archives as a dusty place with old records of little
relevance to today's society, and raise the profile of the archives as a useful tool for both students and faculty," says Forsyth. "Archival material can teach us valuable lessons not only about our past,
but help us to understand our present conditions and plan for the future."
To pique the interest of students and faculty, Forsyth has started an outreach program that ranges from lobby displays of some of the archives' important collections, to orientation tours for students to explain the types of records on hand.
You can, for instance, find important collections here such as former Premier W.A.C. Bennett's papers, John Howard Society papers, SFU benefactors' George and Ida Halpern's papers and
former SFU faculty member Dallas Smythe's papers, whose work had a significant impact on
communications theory in the 20th century.
You'll also find every copy of Simon Fraser News, its predecessor, SFU Week, The Peak, all the records of the senate and board of governors, photographic records of how SFU has changed over the years, architectural drawings, even videotapes of students' performances from the school for the contemporary arts.
The collections also include oral histories reflecting the womens' labor movement -- for instance interviews with women in trades and women who have worked in the fishing industry.
History professor Ian Dyck recently found a way to incorporate the archives into a history methodology course. He devised an assignment requiring his students to research SFU's tempestuous times back in the late '60s. "Methodology is all about working from original documents," says Dyck. "We have an archives right here, so why not use it?"
Archival services include a reference service to help locate information, referral services to other
archives, and copies of archival materials, including copies of video or audio recordings.
An expanded research area makes it easier to work in the archives -- it gives easier access to research tools, and study carrells are set up with audio-visual equipment and computers.
"This job is an ongoing challenge,'' says Forsyth. "Information is taken for granted because it's at our fingertips. It's not until we can't find it that we suddenly start paying attention to it."